On his fourth album in the three years since leaving Rustic Overtones, legendary Portland, Maine keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist and As Fast As founding member Spencer Albee continues to switch things up and cover new ground with his newest solo effort, “Space Versus Speed.” After 2008′s grandiose genre-defying “Destroy the Plastique Man,” early 2009′s alt-pop return-to-roots “AFA For Effort,” and late 2009′s stripped-down acoustic masterpiece “Candy Cake and Ice Cream,” Albee greets the new decade by fully embracing the electro-pop sound and aesthetic that has dominated the airwaves over the past few years. Certain As Fast As songs such as “Homewrecker” in 2008 and “Crazy 4 You” in 2009 might have hinted at this sound, but the difference between the sound and scope of this album and School Spirit Mafia’s “Candy Cake and Ice Cream” is nearly as vast as that between the latter album and the material he released with As Fast As.
Kicking off the album with the driving electro-rock of “Tea and Cocaine,” Albee makes it clear right off the bat that his former quirky acoustic ballads are nowhere to be found this time around. “Set It Off” provides Albee’s take on the 80s new wave of Tears For Fears and Depeche Mode and “Indispen$able” transitions into a midsection that recalls some of As Fast As and Rocktopus’ less-inspired cuts. The album picks up again with the futuristic hip-hop/disco rock of lead single IRok, dipping once again into the less inspired songwriting of “I Feel The Rain” before transitioning into the truly fantastic synth-rock anthem “Walk Away” and finishing the set with the pleasant but unmemorable “ac15″ and “As Land As By Sea.” Albee’s growth as a producer is more than evident; every song on the album teems with small, headphones-requiring details that bring the songs alive, making it evident that he obviously spent quite a bit of time and care crafting the exact sound that he intended on each and every song. Unfortunately, this care for detail seems to have come at the price of the songs themselves; while there isn’t really a “bad” song to be found on the entire album, very few of the songs are memorable in the way that “Whatever Garry” or “So Good” were on his previous effort.
While “Candy Cake and Ice Cream” felt like an album truly different in nature from anything that As Fast As ever released, much of “Space Versus Speed” feels like it could fit comfortably on any of AFA’s three albums. For every song like “Tea and Cocaine” and “IRok” which feels like something truly separate from his past efforts, there’s at least two like “ac15″ which sounds utterly indistinguishable from the sound of material on “Open Letter To The Damned,” or “Redline Cannibal” which sounds like nothing more than an AFA cut with extra synths added in. Of course, sounding like As Fast As is far from a bad thing, as they remain one of the greatest alt-pop bands to ever come from Portland. On the other hand, the obvious similarities leave one to wonder whether it was really necessary for Albee to disband his best-known project if he’s going to put out music with only superficial differences from the music released by AFA.
Whatever the thought process in branding and naming his projects, Spencer Albee has once again turned in a solid (though not perfect) set of forward-thinking pop songs and continues to display growth as a songwriter and producer. If he decides to break his band-ADD habits of the last four years and release another album with this project, I look forward to hearing how Albee’s take on modern electro-pop will continue to evolve. Looking at his recent history though, there’s little to suggest that he’s ready to settle down on one particular sound or aesthetic; luckily, this is one of the reasons that continues to make Spencer Albee one of the most exciting and dynamic musicians on the Portland music scene today. -Joe Horgan